Echoes of the Empire

I shall spend a lot of this summer reading Polybius. The rise and fall of empires is in the air, and Polybius is the most coherent historian of the rise of Rome—not least because he was a Greek and smart. When Polybius describes how the Roman general Titus Flaminius accomplished his mission in the Second Macedonian War of 200-196 B.C. and then promptly promised that the Roman army would withdraw so that Greece might now be free, one cannot avoid a sense of déjà vu all over again.

Such Roman blandishments did not on the whole fool Polybius, but, in general, the old Greek admired Rome; he saw it as the new world called into existence to redress the balance of the old. What other people considered Roman aggressiveness he extolled as efficiency; what others deemed their unthinking arrogance, he thought of as honest confidence. For all Polybius’ praise of Roman discipline, I admire more the Romans’ fierce adversaries, the bright-eyed Celts who threw themselves in waves against the solid wall of Roman shields at the Battle of Telamon in 224 B.C., ululating their wild war cries, wearing nothing but their weapons, their long hair, and the gold collars round their necks.

Of course not all empires are the same, either in the trajectory of their rise and decline, or in the spirit animating them. It would be hard to find in Roman imperial verse such a sense of the fragility of human aspiration as that expressed in the High Victorian ode that Sir Edward Elgar turned into his cantata “The Music Makers.”

One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample an empire down.

More remarkable still for its humility is “Recessional,” the ode written to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897 by Rudyard Kipling, the archpoet of Empire:

Far-called, our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Try getting a Roman emperor (or American president) to utter the final couplet of “Recessional”:

For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!

Of course no empire ever entirely dies. The Romans brought the cherry to Italy and the grape to France, and they seem to have survived. Go to Nîmes in Provence and admire the Roman temple known as the Maison Carée, which still has its Roman roof. Then head out on the old pilgrim road to Compostela ’til you come to pebbled slopes facing south across the marshes of the Camargue, famous for its wild gray horses and pink flamingoes (naturally pink, not kept that way by being fed carrots or shrimp shells like the ones in zoos). Here are the vines of Château L’Ermitage, makers of a wonderful white wine that can be had for around eleven dollars hereabouts.

The 2005 vintage of Chateau l’Ermitage has a trajectory like that of an empire. In the beginning, the color is clear and cloudless, the immediate aroma redolent of flowers from the south. I was reminded of a snuff I used to take that was scented with North African carnations. The initial taste is fresh and light, like melons, almost like watery Chenin Blanc, followed by no sharpness but lots of low and dirty tannins, like Melba toast. Wait, though. The wine grows upon your very tongue. Roussanne grapes, a rather rare variety grown mostly along the Rhône, contribute half of the juice in this vintage (the rest is Grenache and a little Viognier) and in a warm year they produce wine of great richness. The flowery first impression and the forceful tannins fuse into a flavor that is full bodied, powerful, and pungent like gunflint. Enjoy it with old-home chicken—potatoes, garlic, onions, and boneless breasts of chicken (never understood that—I thought most breasts were boneless), fried together and mixed with yogurt just before dishing up. (Make sure you use the plain yogurt, not the strawberry flavor.) Eventually, a day or two after the wine has been exposed to the open air, acid will creep in round the edges. Sic transit gloria mundi. Time to open another bottle.

Oliver Nicholson is a classicist at the University of Minnesota and former secretary of the Wine Committee at Wolfson College, Oxford.

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